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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 16, 2006

Tampa toll way deserves attention here

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By Charles K. Djou

Alternative may not be as glamorous as rail, but it's more affordable

Upon seeing the City of Tampa's elevated toll way, an economist at the Reason Foundation commented that he had "seen the future and it is here."

This past week, I joined other members of the Honolulu City Council to meet with Florida transportation officials and inspected the elevated toll way built by Tampa to address their transportation needs. Although I'm not ready to add the Tampa toll way to the list of wonders of the world, I do think this system deserves serious attention in Honolulu.

Like Honolulu, Tampa considered a rail system and financing it with a tax increase to tackle their transit problems. Rather than build a rail system, Tampa officials instead decided to build an elevated reversible toll way above their existing freeway connecting their growing suburbs to their downtown. This elevated toll way stretches for 14 miles, mounted on 6-foot wide columns, cost $420 million, and did not require any tax increase. The bonds that financed the toll way are paid out of tolls and the system was built in just over three years.

The Tampa elevated toll way isn't as glamorous as a new train set, but it gets the job done for the people of Tampa. The three-lane toll way goes into downtown during the morning rush-hour, back to the suburbs in the afternoon rush-hour and costs commuters $1. Tampa commuters have the option of paying a toll to go into town quickly, but still have the option of going into town for free on their existing highway.

A rail system has largely been the focus of most of the media's attention in Honolulu for addressing our transit needs. O'ahu residents, however, need to understand the enormous financial implications of committing to rail. The city administration estimates that a full 28-mile build out of a rail system could cost more $6 billion. Even a truncated 20-mile system that does not connect UH or Waikiki would still set taxpayers back a hefty $4.2 billion.

The mayor plans to finance a rail system with the half-percent increase in the general excise tax. This tax increase goes into effect on Jan. 1, and it is the largest single tax increase in Hawai'i history. But even this tax increase will not be enough to fund even the truncated 20-mile rail system. Planners are optimistically hoping the federal government will give the city $1 billion, which is $250 million more than the feds have ever given to any transit system outside of New York, to make the numbers for a rail system pencil out. If, however, (a) the federal government isn't as generous as we hope, (b) Hawai'i's economy doesn't stay as robust as planners predict, and/or (c) the project experiences any cost overruns, the city simply will not have enough money to complete even the shortened rail system and another tax increase will likely be necessary.

I recognize that a rail system may have some benefits over an elevated toll way such as reduced environmental emissions. But when we compare the potential cost of more than $6 billion for a rail system versus less than $1 billion for an elevated toll way, we must seriously question if the cost is worth it. Furthermore, building a rail system will take nearly 15 years to complete, while an elevated toll way can be done in less than four years.

The Honolulu City Council owes the public a real discussion of an elevated toll way instead of a rail system to address our traffic problems. Comparing an elevated toll system to a rail system is like comparing a Honda Accord to a Rolls Royce. A Rolls Royce is certainly a nicer car, but most of us probably find the Rolls Royce's additional appointments not worth the additional markup. The majority of us also simply could not afford a Rolls Royce as a family sedan compared to a Honda. A rail system might be nice, but it may not be worth seven times the cost and our pocketbooks cannot afford it when we compare it to an elevated toll way.

Charles K. Djou, a Honolulu city councilman, represents the Waikiki, East Honolulu area. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.